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Arnolfini - est 1961

Frank Bowling’s first time in Bristol, a key moment in the artist’s early career, as retold by his son, Ben Bowling.

Frank came to Bristol just before Christmas 1958. When he got here he had no place to stay, so he rang his friend Bill Gibson in the middle of the night who found him a bed for the night… but he had no idea where he was in Bristol, and Bill said “You can’t miss it, the house is on Whiteladies Road, on Black Boy’s Hill.” Frank said “we this was absolutely hilarious and we all collapsed with laughter.” So obviously Bristol’s history is vivid and present particularly in the last 12 months here but also resonant and reflective to the 1950s.

Frank stayed for around three months, until Easter 1959. It was during his time in Bristol that he applied to the Royal College of Art. He got  to know Carel Weight who was Professor of Painting at the time and Frank got the impression that he had enough natural talent to be able to get in without taking an exam.

While he was here in Bristol he got the rejection letter, which was a devastating disappointment at the time but it taught Frank something which was that he had to work extremely hard to get to art school, at Chelsea and then City and Guilds, where he spent time in the Life Room learning to draw and honed his craft and then reapplied to the Royal College of Art the following year.

So it is Bristol where Frank made his application to the Royal College and that really begins the journey to where we are now. It was also a moment where Frank engaged with the ideas about colour, light and paint meeting and working with Paul Harrison, a colour paint scientist, learning about the science of paint, together with Frank’s interest in geometry, it all has come to fruition in Frank’s six decades of work, very visible here at the Arnolfini in the works made in the last ten years.

Ben Bowling, July 2021

image: Frank Bowling with two early works, c.1960. Photographer unknown. Courtesy Frank Bowling Archive


Frank Bowling Land of Many Waters is at Arnolfini 3 July to 26 September 2021.